A meeting was held on Friday for producers who farm in the Crowley?s Ridge Special Area Land Treatment area. This area is one of small watersheds located in Dunklin County. This project is part of the effort of the Dunklin Soil and Water Conservation District, Dunklin NRCS, and the Bootheel Resource, Conservation, and Development Council (RC, and D). The purpose was to talk about conservation practices, cost share, and to present several educational programs related to reducing soil and water pollution.
For the last year or so, our district, NRCS, and the Bootheel R, C, and D Council has teamed up with the Conservation Technology Information Center. The CTIC assists our nation's agricultural communities in making environmentally responsible and economically viable decisions.
The purpose of our partnership has been to reduce the agricultural runoff which contains fertilizers, pesticides, and sediment or silt. We are working with the CTIC on Reducing the Hypoxia Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
We usually refer to the large watershed in which Missouri is a part as the Mississippi River Watershed. This land area that drains into the Gulf of Mexico is over one million square miles and it drains over 40 percent of the United States and a small part of Canada.
Hypoxia is defined as low dissolved oxygen levels of 2 parts per million or less. Without the dissolved oxygen at a sufficient level to support aquatic life, organisms cannot survive. Some of these organisms are part of the food chain and it can impact the commercial seafood industry along the Gulf Coast. So it is our best interest to do everything that we can to reduce erosion and fertilizer loss. This also makes sense for producers. Since fertilizer prices are high, they need to get the most production that they can from their fertilizer input. Farmers often put out high rates of fertilizer to maximize production, but at a point, they will not get an economic return.
The hypoxia zone is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi River Watershed. Since the nutrients are available, algal blooms will consume the nitrogen and phosphorus. During the day, the algae will produce oxygen, however, at night the algae will respire and cause low dissolved oxygen levels. As these algae die, bacteria will decompose them which reduce the oxygen levels even more. This zone is seasonal from late spring through the summer. Usually the early fall brings cooler temperatures, storms with high wind and rainfall, which causes the zone to dissipate.
Each year the zone will range from 2000 to 9000 square miles along the Louisiana-Texas Coast. Since there are so many variables, it is difficult to predict how large the area will be. The goal is to reduce the nitrogen flux by about 40 percent less than what flows into the Gulf. This can be done by using conservation practices, reducing fertilizer inputs, using improved technology, reducing agricultural runoff and the amount of sediment, and by increasing the amount of wetlands. Wetlands are aquatic bog areas that absorb nutrients which are used by a variety of aquatic species before they can get into the river system. Wetlands are a natural filtration system.
One of the reasons that the hypoxia zone exists is that due to channelization of the Mississippi River and the extensive industrial waterway system. The coastal zone is being lost at a rate of about 35 square miles a year. This is being caused by salt water intrusion into the Louisiana coastal zone and loss of native grasses that can keep the coastal area intact. These marshes are the home to many aquatic species that are part of the food chain. Commercial fisheries have declined as a result of the wetlands loss.
Missouri has a soil and water tax that is used to support putting conservation practices on the ground. There will be less money to spend due to the recession and the loss of sales tax revenue. So it is possible to get some of the resources from the Mississippi River Basin Initiative to offset the loss of state and other federal funds.
It has been shown that it is possible to reduce hypoxia zones around the world. The Black Sea zone was reduced during the decline of the Soviet and the high cost of fertilizer. The North Sea zone was reduced by dropping the nitrogen levels by 37 percent and from government policies that reduced sewage and industrial waste.
Working together, I think that it is possible to reduce agricultural runoff and the problems associated with it. Missouri had made great strides in protecting our soil and water resources.
University of Missouri Extension programs are open to all.
Dr. Michael R. Milam is an agronomy specialist and county program director with University of Missouri Extension in Dunklin County.